Quell Quailgate

By Charles Krauthammer
Friday, February 17, 2006

I'm just glad he didn't shoot Scalia.

Well, everyone's entitled to one Quailgate joke, so that's mine. Although the best one, occurring at the White House news briefing Monday, was only inadvertently funny. Reporter's question to Scott McClellan: "Would this be much more serious if the man had died?"

This news briefing got famously out of control (as a psychiatrist I found the groups I ran for inpatient schizophrenics far more civilized) over the new great issue of our time: Why was there a 14-hour delay in calling the press?

Let's pose a hypothetical. You're at a gathering at a friend's house in the country. You're all playing touch football and, as you lunge to tag someone, you stumble and accidentally barrel into a would-be receiver running a crossing pattern and you knock him down, breaking a few of his ribs, maybe puncturing a lung and who knows what else.

What do you do? You get him immediate help. Then you notify and tend to his family. Then you try to calm the host and the guests and to mitigate the damage you've caused.

Now change the hypothetical in just two ways. It's not touch football but a birdshot accident, which makes it a bit more romantic and more comical. But that changes nothing about the correct reaction.

Then it turns out you're not just anybody but the vice president of the United States. What do you do?

If the victim is Alexander Hamilton -- or Antonin Scalia -- this is an event with deep implications for the country, and the country needs to know about it immediately.

But the man is neither. He is a private citizen. Had he been shot by Joe Blow, it would merit perhaps a three-line item in the local newspaper and be entirely forgotten to history.

So the story is you, the vice president. You shot him. But it was an accident, and the event has no effect on national policy, national security, national anything. Something happened involving the vice president that was interesting and unusual but of no great significance beyond that.

Do you notify the national press right away? In his interview Wednesday with Brit Hume of Fox News, Vice President Cheney gave two explanations for the 14-hour delay. First, to give time to notify the family. This is perfectly legitimate. You have done enough damage. You don't want to compound it by having the man's children find out on television that their father was shot.

But they were notified within a few hours on Saturday night. Why the overnight delay? Accuracy, Cheney told Hume. Reports about Whittington's condition Saturday night were preliminary and uncertain. Cheney wanted to wait until he knew something definitive.

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